THE FATE OF THE NINTH: The Curious Disappearance of Legio VIIII Hispana

Duncan B. Campbell

Bocca della Verita (2018) p/b 155pp £11.99 (ISBN 13 978179168331)

Say it enough times and it must be true. Thus the opening roll of text in the movie ‘The Eagle’ (sc. ‘of the Ninth’, 2011) assures us that Hadrian, miffed by the loss of his eagle at the hands of Picts, decided to build a wall. Something similar, too, in the movie ‘Centurion’ (2010), both, of course, dependent on Rosemary Sutcliffe for their research. 

But it wasn’t just the purveyors of fiction who perpetuated the idea of such a loss. Many respectable archaeologists, too, in the absence of real evidence, were attracted to this explanation. Indeed, Gestalt psychology clearly shows how we all try to make sense of a chaotic world, and accounts for how little even eye-witness accounts of events are to be trusted. But when, relying on likelihoods, the great Mommsen supported the idea of a terrible catastrophe under Hadrian, with a Brigantian attack on York ‘undoubtedly soon after AD 108’ (Hadrian, 117-138!), few thought it worth questioning. But then, they weren’t fortunate enough to have C.’s work, The Fate of the Ninth, to hand, which presents all the evidence (mainly epigraphic, and with the minimum of speculation), explains it, and presents us with the most likely conclusion about what became of the Ninth. 

But if you think that this book is the last word on the fate of the Ninth, think again. And this is C.’s main point. The book is most importantly a history of epigraphical and prosopographical scholarship and their use to nail down historical events. There will be few definitive answers to the questions that historical narrative can throw up until the results of archaeological research are exhausted—and that will be a rare occurrence. All this to prepare for the possible disappointment of discovering that the case is still open. 

Nevertheless, the conclusion, as far as it goes, is state of the art, even if not accepted by all. The legion is represented on tile and mortarium stamps after it was supposedly wiped out; their commanders had lengthy careers thenceforth; the legion appears in later eastern campaigns. As ever, it seems far easier to show what didn’t happen than what did, and we can’t deny those in the fiction business their minor excesses. Without those, surely, no Iliad.

What Campbell has produced here is a model monograph, with the evidence, the best conclusions it allows, illustrations, time line, footnotes and indices. And it is beautifully written.

Adrian Spooner

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